The band's original lineup included John Rzeznik (vocals, guitar), Robby Takac (vocals, bass), and George Tutuska (drums, percussion). Takac and Tutuska had been long-time friends in school and met Rzeznik while he was playing in the band The Beaumonts with Takac's cousin, Paul Takac and close friend Michael Harvey who was the inspiration for the band. The trio picked their name from a True Detective ad for a toy called a Goo Goo Doll. "We were young and we were a garage band not trying to get a deal. We had a gig that night and needed a name. It's the best we came up with, and for some reason it stuck. If I had five more minutes, I definitely would have picked a better name", John stated. With Takac as their lead singer, the band released their first album, Goo Goo Dolls in 1987 on Mercenary Records, but was picked up in 1988 by Celluloid Records, a larger record company. They played around Buffalo's underground music circuit opening for punk bands such as SNFU, Dag Nasty, ALL, The Dead Milkmen, Gang Green, Doughboys, and DRI and playing with fellow Buffalo bands. The band released its second album Jed in 1989.
The band released its third album, Hold Me Up, in 1990 and featured Rzeznik as the lead vocalist on five tracks, including the single, "There You Are"—as well as their then concert favorite, "Two Days in February". After being embraced by local college radio and punk scenes (including playing such venues as CBGB), the Goo Goo Dolls' third release incorporated elements of heavy metal, pop rock, and punk rock. In 1991, the song "I'm Awake Now" was recorded for the Soundtrack of Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare.
Superstar Car Wash, released in 1993, received significant media attention. The critical success and encouraging sales of their last album resulted in a larger budget from Metal Blade Records. The album was partially recorded at Metalworks Studios in Mississauga, Ontario. "We Are the Normal" (the single for which Rzeznik asked frontman Paul Westerberg of The Replacements to write the lyrics) received a major push toward play on college and independent radio, while its video was displayed on MTV's 120 Minutes program. "Fallin' Down" made it onto the 1993 Soundtrack of Pauly Shore's hit film Son in Law.
Shortly after recording the band's fifth album A Boy Named Goo, Tutuska was kicked out of the band. The band moved forward from this December 31, 1994, incident, hiring Mike Malinin, and toured rigorously.
A Boy Named Goo, released in 1995, had a catchy rock sound, and became one of the most successful alternative rock albums of the mid-1990s. It sold modestly in this time; however, it was not until the release of the single "Name" that the band experienced any viable commercial success. A Boy Named Goo became the first album in Metal Blade history to achieve double-platinum status. This success, however, proved bittersweet, as the band found themselves in a legal battle with Metal Blade records. The band filed suit against Metal Blade, claiming they had not earned any royalties from their album's sales, which was attributed to a "grossly unfair, one-sided and unenforceable contract" which had been signed by the band in 1987. The two sides reached a settlement which had the band signed to the Metal Blade's distributing label, Warner Bros. Records, under which the band released their sixth album, Dizzy Up the Girl, in 1998. The undisputed success of "Name" marked a fundamental change in the band's sound from alternative rock to a more mainstream "adult orientated rock" (AOR) direction which disappointed many of the original fans of the band. It was "Name" that had made the band popular and they were able to make guest appearances on Beverly Hills, 90210, Charmed, and even presented an award to Michael Jackson.
July 4, 2004 has been proclaimed "Goo Goo Dolls Day" in their native Buffalo, New York.
The band performed "Better Days" and "Stay With You" at the halftime of the Detroit Lions' 2007 Thanksgiving Day game at Ford Field, which focused on the United Way and the NFL's commitment to youth health and fitness.
On June 12, 2009, the band mentioned on their Facebook page that the Producer for their new album was Tim Palmer. On August 15, 2009, Robby Takac posted an update on his Twitter account stating that the recording for the new album had been completed, and the mixing of the album was yet to be done. Then on September 18, 2009, John Rzeznik stated in an interview on Good Day L.A., that the new album had tentatively been titled Something for the Rest of Us.
The band performed a live mini concert at the Apple Store in Manhattan, New York on December 2, 2010. The show was recorded and was released in 2011 as a part of Apple's "Live at SoHo" collection which is sold online at the iTunes Store. On January 3, 2011, the band performed the halftime show at the Orange Bowl played between the Stanford Cardinal and the Virginia Tech Hokies. On January 30, 2011, they performed before the start of the Pro Bowl in Hawaii. On February 7, 2011 they performed at the Delta Ballroom in St. John's Newfoundland, beginning their 2011 Canadian tour.
On May 23, 2011, it was announced that the band had recorded a song for the 2011 film Transformers: Dark of the Moon called "All That You Are", and was released on the film's Soundtrack on June 14, 2011. In September 2011, "Iris" reached the number three spot in the Top 40 in the UK, 13 years after its original release.
On August 9, 2012, the band announced that they had started recording their tenth studio album. The new album, titled Magnetic, was recorded using multiple producers. On January 18, 2013, the band released the first single off of Magnetic titled "Rebel Beat". Magnetic was released on June 11, 2013 and debuted at #8 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart. On July 19, 2013 the band released the second single off of Magnetic, "Come to Me".
On December 27, 2013, Malinin announced his departure from the band via Twitter and Facebook.
The Goo Goo Dolls celebrated the 20th anniversary of the release of A Boy Named Goo by releasing a special edition of the album on November 27, 2015. The special edition contains the original track listing of the album, along with seven unreleased tracks. In addition, Dizzy Up the Girl and A Boy Named Goo were released for the first time on vinyl on October 8 and November 27, respectively.
On February 22, 2016 the band announced a 2016 summer tour with Collective Soul and Tribe Society to promote Boxes.
On May 12, 2017, Goo Goo Dolls released a five-song EP, entitled You Should Be Happy, which features 4 original songs and a re-mix of the title track, "Boxes," from their last album. In support of the EP the band toured throughout the summer of 2017 on the "Long Way Home" tour with Phillip Phillips. The tour included a performance in their hometown, Buffalo, on August 12.